There’s no way around it: Becoming a professional dancer is hard. Whether you dream of becoming a hip hop dancer in commercials and music videos, a principal in a ballet company, or a backup dancer on tour, making it as a dancer is no cakewalk. As the legendary dancer-choreographer Merce Cunningham once said, “You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.”
To get your dance career off on the right foot, we’ve compiled an in-depth guide to becoming a professional dancer—including how to find dance auditions, where to train, and how to start choreographing.
- What types of professional dancers are there?
- Do I need training to be a dancer?
- Do dancers need singing or acting training?
- What does it take to be a dancer?
- How do I make a dance reel for auditions?
- How do I find dance auditions?
- How should I prepare for a dance audition?
- How do I stand out in a dance audition?
- Do I need a talent agent to be a professional dancer?
- How can I build my career as a dancer?
- What’s the best place to live as a professional dancer?
- How do I start my own dance company?
- How do I become a choreographer?
There are three basic types of professional dancers: commercial dancers, company dancers, and dance teachers. Although there are certainly dance gigs and and opportunities that fall outside of those categories, most dance careers follow one of these tracks:
- Commercial dancers: As the name implies, commercial dancers earn their living dancing in commercial projects. This includes tours, music videos, movies, industrials, cruise ships, musicals, and, yes, actual commercials. Commercial dancers are freelancers and work on a project-by-project basis. The upside of this is that it means a lot of freedom and flexibility. The downside, as with all freelance work, is that it can be sporadic and there’s always a hustle involved in finding the next gig.
- Company dancers: Company dancers are hired by a single company that they perform with (often for years on end). This kind of work is steadier and—for dancers with concert specialities, like ballet—it can be a rewarding option.
- Dance teachers: Don’t let the old saying “those who can’t do teach” trip you up here. Teaching dance very much counts as professionally working as a dancer. If you decide to teach (either as a side job or as a full-time career), there are lots of avenues available to you, from establishing yourself as an independent instructor to working through a school. There’s also a lot of variety in the level of dance class you can choose to teach, from children’s or beginner’s classes to high-level college or dance academy instruction.
While there are no specific education requirements to be a dancer, training is an essential part of a career in dance. No matter how natural you feel on your feet, almost everyone will need at least some formal training to become a professional dancer. Many dancers pursuing professional careers have been training since they were very young, and may or may not decide to pursue more intense training in high school and in college, at academies or conservatories.
If you’re new to dance—or just wondering what kind of additional training will be the most helpful when going pro—consider ballet classes. Most dancers will tell you that ballet is always the most practical place to start. Having a strong foundation gives you strength, flexibility, and muscle memory, which will aid you in any style of dance. In a large city like New York, there are numerous dance centers such as Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway that teach classes ranging from salsa and hip hop to contemporary and theater jazz. If you are in a small town, check to see what adult dance classes are available at local dance studios and community centers near you.
Professional dancers often incorporate cross-training into their routines, as well, to stay in shape and avoid injury. Some favorites among dancers include strength training and cardiovascular workouts at the gym, Pilates, yoga, swimming, and biking. Pilates and yoga, for instance, use a lot of the same muscle groups and sculpt them in the same long and lean manner as ballet training does. Since most dance classes are anaerobic and not geared to build up cardiovascular strength, swimming and biking are beneficial in rounding out a dancer’s workout routine.
Here’s the good news: Unless your dream is to perform as a triple threat on Broadway, you probably won’t need to worry about learning to sing and act to make it as a professional dancer. Ballet dancers rarely have to speak onstage, and modern and contemporary dancers usually work with adding sound to pieces only when it is part of the director’s artistic vision. It is becoming more common, but you don’t necessarily have to be a stellar singer with a voice coach to make the magic happen onstage.
However, if you are looking to be in theatrical productions or on Broadway, adding singing and acting skills to your CV is a definite bonus. Even so, keep in mind that singing is typically the second half of a Broadway audition for dance roles. First, dancers must pass the choreography round and show their ability to pick up movement phrases quickly and perform them with amazing precision and strength. Singing usually isn’t a factor until callbacks, when performers are typically expected to have 16 bars of music ready to sing.
Beyond the obvious—you should be a skilled dancer, of course!—you’ll need three things in order to pursue a career in dance: a headshot, a dance résumé, and a dance reel. Most auditions will require you to submit these materials in advance, as will some potential agents. We’ll walk you through each one below:
Headshots: Most dance auditions and casting calls will require you to bring a current headshot. These serve a couple of important purposes. First, they’re your professional calling card and help agents, casting directors, and choreographers to remember you. Second, they give casting directors and choreographers a quick, easy way to determine which dancers from the pool of applicants best fit the specific look the company or production is going for. This is why it’s vital that your headshot looks like you (and specifically like you right now—if you have long hair in your headshot and a pixie cut in real life, casting directors may feel like they wasted their time calling you in). Do your best to look natural and like the real you in your headshots. Finally, make sure your face is clearly visible in the shot and that you print your headshots off as 8” x 11” photos.
Dance Résumé: Dancing may be your passion, but it’s also a profession—and you need a résumé for just about any job you apply for. Generally speaking, résumés should be concise, clear, and easy to read. Instead of listing experience as a nanny, server, or dog-walker, a dance résumé should include the following information:
- Your name
- A working phone number
- Email address
- Union status (AEA, EMC, SAG-AFTRA, SAG-eligible, nonunion, etc.)
- Your dance experience
No need to list your age or address or other personal details. Physical attributes like can be included depending on who and what you’re auditioning for. Theater auditions don’t generally require such details, while film productions—especially if you’re self-taping—often do. Don’t shy away from including a URL for your website or demo reels, but make sure it is as short and simple as possible.
Dance Reel: Having a dance reel is important regardless of what kind of project or production you apply for. Dance reels are usually a few minutes in length and consist of a series of clips that highlight your dance experience. (More on that below.) Consider your reel your chance to shine on your own, even if you might feel lost in a crowd of 75 other dancers at an open call.
A dance reel—much like the traditional demo reel for actors—is a short compilation of video clips that demonstrates your experience and skill as a dancer. To make your dance reel, begin with a screen featuring your headshot and your name. Then, transition into the clips you’ve selected. These should illustrate your strengths and mastery of technique. If you’re a versatile dancer, demonstrate the many styles you’re trained in. But don’t include sub-par clips just to add another style to your reel.
If you don’t have footage from a performance, don’t worry—it’s acceptable to have a friend film you performing choreography in a studio space or even outdoors and use that in your reel. As you gain more dance experience, you can update your clips with high-quality footage. When possible, avoid group dances where it may be hard to tell who is who. If you do include a group performance, position that clip later in your reel so that viewers will have a better chance of identifying you based on your solo clips.
Choose background music that will complement your movement. Avoid music that’s too distracting and takes away from your dancing, but don’t worry if the music you select doesn’t always perfectly match your movements in the reel. What’s important is that there is a cohesive flow that leaves the viewer feeling excited about you as a moving artist.
End your reel with your email and phone number (and website if you have one) to make it easy for the viewer to contact you if they want to bring you in for an audition or book you.
Making it as a professional dancer means going out on lots of auditions. If you have an agent, they may send you to specific calls—but you don’t have to have representation to put yourself up for dance gigs. To find dance auditions on your own, you can use an online casting platform like Backstage. We’ve been around for more than 50 years, making us an established resource for finding auditions of all kinds, including those for dancers and choreographers. Backstage regularly posts new casting calls for dancers on Broadway and elsewhere.
But once you find an audition, what’s next? There are three main ways to book a dance audition: you can self-submit on platforms like Backstage, you can go to open calls, or an agent can submit you.
Self-submitting: Start by searching casting notices on your platform of choice. On Backstage, you’ll see that each one is broken down by type of production, type of role, whether or not it’s a paid job and if it’s a union or nonunion job, its location, the age-range for talent sought, and the list goes on. Search results can also be filtered based on what your preferred search preferences are. Save those preferences for future use, and there are bound to be new listings for you to consider every single day.
Say you find a project that interests you and fits your type. From there, information on submitting a dance résumé and reel or self-taped audition will be made available to subscribers. Or if in-person auditions are being held, timing for the open call or additional information on how to schedule an audition time will also be available. The key is to be ready and waiting, because you never know when the right opportunity will come knocking.
Open calls: For concert dance, freelance projects, and company auditions, posts will always inform you as to whether the audition is going to be an open call with no pre-registration needed, or if steps need to be taken before you arrive. Be sure to pay attention to deadlines! Some companies only want to audition a certain amount of dancers based on the studio space or time constraints—so it’s in your best interest to submit right away. To register, they will likely ask you to send in your materials (headshot, CV, and dance reel), then contact you if you have been selected to attend the audition.
Agents: If you are going the agent route, they will usually submit you for a preliminary selection and let you know if you were given a spot at an audition. It’s common for companies to be looking for a certain body type or aesthetic, so don’t take it personally if you are not invited to an audition right away. Your agent will do their best to get you in the door for roles that best fit your look and talent.
Dance auditions can be incredibly daunting, but you can prepare ahead of time to make the process go as smoothly as possible. Dance veteran Kerry Wee actually shared six dance audition tips that will help you prepare—and even shine:
- Do your homework. Research is always a good first step. “You may be told the artist or choreographer who you’ll be dancing for in advance. If so, go online and study their videos to see the movement style and look and feel,” Wee suggests. “It’ll give you an idea of what you’ll be asked to learn and perform and give you direction in styling yourself. In the instances when you have prior notice and the choreographer teaches locally, try to get to a class to practice the style and introduce yourself.”
- Practice on camera. In the world of commercial dance, a lot of auditions are done on-camera, so you want to make sure you’re familiar with, well, what you look like on camera. Wee suggests that you practice by filming yourself and polishing your close-up introduction (which is also known as your “slate”).
- Polish your freestyle. “Sometimes you’ll be asked to do your own thing, show off your special skills, and hopefully wow the people on the other side of the table,” Wee says. “For some, this can be the most nerve-wracking part because you have to figure out a way to distinguish yourself alongside other dancers. The other option which is even scarier to others is that you must go one at a time. The only way to get better at it is to practice. Luckily, our industry is built for this. Practice your freestyle at clubs, industry events, in class when you get the opportunity, and in the privacy of your own home. Not only will you feel more comfortable after lots of practice, but you’ll eventually carve out your own personal style.”
- Stretch and pack for the day. Being prepared for a dance audition isn’t just about studying the material. It also means arriving at the audition dressed comfortably, warmed up, stretched out, and ready to go. You should also pack your audition bag with a clean hard copy of your headshot stapled to your résumé, extra shoes and clothes, snacks and water.
- Stay focused. “It can be hard to stay mentally focused on learning the choreography, dancing your best, and not get sidetracked socializing with other dancers,” Wee explains. “Although there’s nothing wrong with networking (some of my closest friendships in the industry were built on those hours of waiting during auditions!), the balance between the two can be challenging depending on your personality.”
- Try not to take things personally. Remember that, even though dance is an art form, auditions are a numbers game. “If you walk into the room with no expectations and out with gratitude for the opportunity, I bet the rejection will feel less bad when it doesn’t go your way,” Wee advises. “We can’t control the decisions that happen behind the closed doors of casting offices so the best thing to do afterward is release it and go on with your day. It can be easier said than done but as a professional dancer, it’s your job to put your best self forward, brush yourself off, and then do it again.”
Dance auditions can be crowded, with dozens or even hundreds of dancers vying for just a few spots. That’s why it’s so important to do what you can to stand out (in a good way, of course) at every audition you go on. Here are a few dance audition tips to help you shine and stand out in a dance audition:
Bring yourself. It sounds simple, but find the thing that makes you unique and special as a dancer. “Nobody is the same, so you really have to bring yourself,” So You Think You Can Dance judge and executive producer Nigel Lythgoe explains. “I believe we’ve all got that little light inside us, and you’ve just got to find that button and turn it on.”
Leave your ego at home. Choreographers want great dancers, obviously, but they’re looking for more than just raw skill and talent. “I find that dancers sometimes think the casting decision is based on ‘who has the most turns’ or ‘the highest kicks,’ but it is much more than that,” says choreographer Richard J. Hinds. “When I hire dancers, I am asking them to take a collaborative journey with me, so beyond being strong technicians, I need people who don’t bring an ego into the room, are open and present during the learning process, and who really want to be there.”
Be original. Leaving the ego at home doesn’t mean ignoring your own unique style. “I look for that spark of originality that adds to the flavor of my choreo,” says Rosero McCoy, a choreographer who has worked on “Step Up,” “America’s Best Dance Crew,” and “Shake It Up”. “For me, a dancer who can adapt to the feel of my choreography and still maintain their originality, I love!”
Have confidence. Nancy O’Meara, a choreographer whose credits include “Hannah Montana and tours for John Legend and Vanessa Hudgens, says confidence is key in auditions. “I wish I could change the spelling to ‘confidance,’” she says. “If you work hard and take care of yourself everyday, then bring it with you to the audition. I want to see you succeed. The Golden Rule applies to dancers, too. I treat dancers the way I wanted to be treated. There are many choreographers that I’ve worked with when I was dancing who I’d see and say, “I never want to be you when I grow up. No need for a power trip.”
Depending on your goals as a dancer, a talent agent could definitely be helpful for your career. That said, representation is by no means a requirement for success as a professional dancer.
Agents can be a tremendous support in helping a dancer not only find work that suits them, but provide them with access to auditions that aren’t always posted publicly. An agent can submit your materials for a preliminary cut that may get you a spot in an audition that would have been next to impossible to obtain on your own. For commercial dance and broadway, an agent is definitely an expedited route to increase your chances of getting cast. If you are interested in these genres of dance, you can submit your information and materials on the agency’s website for consideration to come in for an audition for representation. Major agencies represent artists mostly in New York and L.A, but do work with some dancers in other major cities and locations as well, so be sure to do your research and see what fits best with where you are and where you would be willing to go. If you are feeling well-trained, confident, and ready to dedicate a large portion of your schedule to auditions, check out agencies like Bloc and Clear Talent Group to see if an agent is the right next step for you.
Dancers interested in concert dance—primarily modern and contemporary, as well as ballet companies—probably do not need an agent. Many of these auditions are posted clearly online and anyone is welcome to come and give the audition their best shot. There is usually less division between union and non-union, and you don’t have to worry about being equity. Many dancers go their entire careers without having to worry about these details at auditions. Everyone is there to be seen at the same place at the same time. Dancers are used all the time now for print and television commercials, so if you are interested in diversifying the kind of work you get, it wouldn’t hurt to look into agency work in addition to dancing in a company.
To advance your dance career, networking is key. In the dance world, that means taking classes and workshops and attending many performances as possible. You can also reach out directly to other dancers you admire. If you’re just getting started, here are some ways to get yourself out there and meet the people who can ultimately make a big difference in your career.
Take classes. Taking dance classes is necessary for keeping in shape and continuing to develop your craft, but it’s also an important part of furthering your career. “Just turning up to an audition and getting booked is a possible reality, but your chances will be much higher if either the choreographer or director is already familiar with your work and you as a person,” says choreographer and dance teacher Carlos Neto. “When planning your training, try to thoroughly research classes and be wise about what you take. Look into the teacher’s experience and if their background or current work is in an area you want to pursue. It’s not just the teacher that you will want to think about networking with, but also those attending with you. These connections can help you all as you move beyond the class.”
Attend workshops. Many workshops are held by already-established choreographers and company members and, more often than not, these pros are keeping an eye out to see who is picking up their movement well. If you can make a good impression in a workshop, it could lead to performance opportunities down the road.
Perfect your elevator pitch. Your elevator pitch is a short way to sell yourself professionally. Practice your “pitch” so you’re confident and calm when the moment comes to explain to someone in a position to hire you why they should do just that.
Have an online presence. Networking isn’t just for in-person events and meetings anymore. As a dancer, you should be using social media to promote your work. “Interact with those in your field, but aim to not be distracted by all the noise surrounding these platforms,” Neto says. “Don’t let likes or views dictate what you post or not post. Keep it professional and let your work speak for itself.”
To be a professional dancer, you will find most opportunities in New York and Los Angeles—easily two of the world’s largest markets for working dancers today. Which city you choose depends on what you’re looking for from your career. Do you want to dance in music videos and commercials? Los Angeles is probably your best bet. For all things theater, New York has you covered. There are naturally exceptions to that rule: TV and film projects work out of New York all the time, and L.A. has a great theater scene, both just to a lesser degree than their counterpart.
You can also make a living as a dancer outside of these two cities. Consider the full picture of what you want out of life—not just your dance career, but other factors that are important to you, like cost of living, proximity to family, etc.—when deciding what city to make your home base. Regional theater and dance is always an option and, for some artists, these smaller markets really do provide the best of both worlds.
Especially if you’re interested in choreography, you may be interested in starting a dance company of your own. Sometimes, the best way to perform the art you want to perform is to put it on yourself.
- Find like-minded performers. Start by finding other passionate artists who share your vision and drive to create. Many dancers are willing to participate in projects related to a strong mission or cause, even if the pay may be low at first.
- Collaborate with other choreographers. Working with dancers who also have a passion for choreographing is a wonderful way to share what could feel like an overwhelming project, especially if it’s your first time working on your own. Or consider bringing other artists, like musicians and singers, into the process—they may have new ideas that will help strengthen your creative vision.
- Determine your company’s legal status. There are a number of different ways to register your company, from a legal standpoint. “Will you be official and register with a state, play it loose and operate under the name without an LLC or S-Corp, or form a nonprofit?” asks professional dancer and Berklee professor Aaron Tolson. “Each version has its upside. Operating as ‘company name’ is the easiest and cheapest,” he continues. “You just start rehearsing and performing. This is a good way to just start dancing. However, forming an LLC is probably the safest bet. You can have insurance to protect yourself from injuries and allow you to rehearse in people’s spaces. A nonprofit is a giant mountain that’s worth the effort. This type of company will allow you to get grants and donations easier. Maintaining nonprofit status is the hard part.”
- Apply for grants. If you’re starting your own company or even just trying to put on a single show, you should look into grant funding options. A great place to find dance grants is Grant Space, which provides tools, trainings, and resources that support artists in finding the right kinds of grants for their work. No matter where in the country you are and at what stage you are in your project, these tools can be the catalyst to make your artistic dreams gain momentum. One size does not fit all when it comes to funding and these applications can be incredibly time consuming. Finding a grant is only the first step. When it comes to writing an artist’s statement and proposal, it’s always a comfort to have an example to follow, and Grant Space can guide you through this process. Creative Capital and Dance Magazine are also good resources for dancers looking to start their own companies or projects.
If you dream of choreographing—whether it’s for yourself or for others to interpret—there are plenty of opportunities out there. To find choreography opportunities, use Backstage, Dance Magazine, and Dance/NYC, which list jobs available across the country. Postings can include residencies at colleges looking for emerging choreographers to set work on student dancers, giving them a professional experience. Many posts give you the space to shine in festivals featuring new choreography.
Just as you would have your headshot, résumé, and dance reel ready to apply for a dance audition, the same is often necessary to apply for choreographic posts. Normally there will be an electronic application that you can download and submit online. Be ready with hard copies of your choreographic résumé and a press packet for your company or project for opportunities that require physical submissions. You should also have links to excerpts or full videos of your work on hand—these will likely be required to give people on selection committees a feel for the potential of your work and how it would fit among other pieces in the festival or program in question, especially if there’s a common theme or audience the festival is targeting.
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